Dangerous Liaisons on Native American Lands

Newsweek, March 29, 1991
Assignment: Several firms were trying quietly to establish hazardous-waste sites on Native American tribal lands.

Among the Choctaw Indians of Mississippi, an ancient myth describes how four tribes sprang from an enormous earthen mound called Nanih Waiya, the Great Mother. First came the Creeks, then the Cherokees and the Chickasaw. Prodigals all, they abandoned the Great Mother and fled west. When the Choctaw -- the last of her children -- emerged, Nanih Waiya begged them to stay. So for 10,000 years the Choctaw have farmed the rich, dark soil of the river delta, never far from the grassy bluff where the bodies of priests and chiefs were laid to rest.

But the Choctaws' faith in the Great Mother has waned, and now the tribe contemplates construction of a new kind of burial mound: a landfill of hazardous wastes. It could bring prosperity, something Nanih Waiya has never been able to offer her most devoted children.

On this hardscrabble reservation and a score of others, waste-disposal companies are lobbying Native Americans for the right to build incinerators, landfills, and storage facilities. Many tribes are finding the pitch irresistible. They desperately need industry and jobs, and all they have to offer is real estate situated far off the beaten path -- land, incidentally, not subject to state taxation or regulation. Says Pam Erickson, vice president of Native Americans for a Clean Environment: "These firms are riding the coattails of the sovereignty issue. They realize these are poor people and they boggle them with this money. They are pitting Indians against Indians, tribes against chiefs."

In South Dakota, the Rosebud Sioux recently signed a contract with RSW Inc. (a subsidiary of a Connecticut construction company called O&G Industries Inc.) to host a 5,760-acre landfill that will accept garbage from as far away as Denver and Minneapolis. Another O&G subsidiary, Amcor, had failed to win a similar deal with a Sioux tribe in nearby Pine Ridge. One telling clause in the Rosebud contract: "In no event shall any environmental regulation or standards of South Dakota be applicable to this project."

Two reservations near San Diego, Los Coyotes and Campo Indian, are planning enormous solid-waste sites. If approved, the Campo landfill would be operated by an Ohio company, Mid-America Waste Systems, and would accept up to 3,000 tons of garbage a day -- about 20 percent of San Diego County's output. Somewhat alarmed, the California legislature has twice considered bills giving the state authority to regulate dump sites on Indian land. The first passed but was vetoed by former Gov. George Deukmejian.

Far more disturbing are the many corporate efforts to site hazardous waste facilities on Native American land. Last year the Kaibab-Paiute, who live on a reservation in northwest Arizona, agreed to a deal with Waste Tech Services -- a Golden, Colo., company active in lobbying tribes nationwide -- for construction of an hazardous waste incinerator. After a storm of protest from environmentalists and tribe members, officials backed out of the contract. In Southern California, the tiny La Posta band is pressing ahead with plans to lease 30 acres of remote reservation land for a $35 million "recycling" facility that will handle 120,000 tons of toxic waste a year. Only 80 percent will be recycled; the rest will be burned in an incinerator or dumped in a landfill.

In northern Oklahoma, the Kaw Nation last year jumped at the chance to earn more than $1 million annually by permitting a hazardous waste incinerator on trust land (which is not quite the same as a reservation). The tribal council signed a contract with Waste Tech and immediately earned $100,000. "Waste Tech talked about the economic advantages and the jobs, but they knew they would get tax breaks," says Joanne O'Bregon, secretary of the Kaw executive council. "That was mainly why they were interested." But many Kaws were outraged by the deal, and members of the tribal council later were astounded to learn that a similar incinerator operated by the company in Louisiana had been heavily fined for environmental infractions. Last December, the tribe reversed its decision. "We just felt that we needed to think more about the future and what we'd be leaving for our children," says O'Bregon. "It seems like we're getting these people no one else wants. They get run out of town, and so they start heading for Indian country."

Perhaps the most vivid example of the reservation rush is unfolding in eastern Mississippi. Over 7,000 Choctaw Indians live in the area, about 4,600 of them on tribal lands. The band is descended from Choctaws who remained in Mississippi after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, when the Choctaw nation as a whole surrendered its territory to the U.S. and officially removed to Oklahoma. Those left behind formed a "checkerboard" reservation: bits and pieces of the tribe's 22,000 acres are scattered over seven communities. Pearl River hosts the largest tract, including the tribal offices, an industrial park, schools, a hospital, a television station, a rest home, and an amphitheater.

Under Chief Phillip Martin, who took office in 1979, the tribe has acquired a national reputation for aggressive pursuit of economic development. The altogether unlikely Choctaw Industrial Park is home to the Choctaw Greeting Card Co., the Choctaw Electronics Co., and the Chahta Construction Co. The reservation's brick and cinderblock homes, painted in pastels, are modest at best, but the hospital is modern and the high school well attended. Unemployment, which ran about 70 percent ten years ago, dipped below 20 percent until the recession; now it's nearing 25 percent again. William Richardson, the Choctaws' director of economic development, claims tribal business ventures gross $60 million per year but declines to say how much is profit.

Disaffected members of the tribal council, though, estimate that revenues run only $30 million per year, the vast majority of it federal grant monies. Whatever its size, the largesse is not widely shared. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, annual income among the Mississippi Choctaw is still only $3,011 per capita (up from $1,011 in 1976). And Richardson admits the tribe incurred a sizeable debt in establishing its businesses, though he again declines to say how much.

Tribal economics play a significant part in the bizarre deal the Choctaws recently struck for a hazardous waste facility. In June 1990, the tribal council voted 12-4 to enter into a contract with National Disposal Systems Inc. (NDS), a firm composed of four Mississippi businessmen who had acquired 466 acres of land in Noxubee County on the Alabama border. (The reservation sits in Neshoba County.) Records in the Secretary of State's office show that NDS wasn't even incorporated until July 5, the day the waste contract was signed with the Choctaw. NDS then deeded its parcel, which has never been part of this or any other reservation, over to the tribe for $10, on condition that the Choctaws make every effort to see the tract taken into trust as tribal land. The contract then obligates the tribe to lease the acreage back to NDS for use as a hazardous waste landfill for 50 years.

The tribe received $300,000 for signing the contract; another $200,000 waits in escrow pending the U.S. Department of Interior's approval of the parcel as reservation land. The tribal council last December authorized a resolution asking the department to do just that, but the local agency superintendent, Robert Benn, disapproved. His memo noted that the land is not adjacent to the reservation, that the site would not attract many Choctaw laborers, that neighborhood opposition could "put the tribe in a very bad light," and that the Choctaw simply could not handle liability claims if the facility caused environmental damage. To date, no action has been taken on the Choctaws' request.

"It's not necessarily a good thing," Benn says drily. "There are other ventures the tribe can get into." But not many this lucrative. The waste site could fetch up to $10 million in annual untaxed revenues for the Choctaw. That would pay off a lot of debt.

Back on the reservation, a vocal minority of Choctaws have begun protesting the company's plans. At a demonstration and march last Saturday, about 175 protestors waved signs saying "Don't Dump on Us" and "We eat bologna, the Chief eats steak." A petition demanding that the matter be put to a public referendum has garnered 1,100 signatures; it needed only 800 to pass.

Chief Martin has responded to the criticism by publishing a pamphlet entitled "The Facts," which spells out his case for the landfill. "This project will create employment and generate unrestricted revenues for the tribal government," says the flier. "Should the Council action be reversed by the Choctaw people, the Tribe will have lost its stability and broken its word." The chief went on to urge Choctaws who had signed the petition to have their names removed. This week, Martin called a emergency meeting of the tribal council on Friday morning to discuss the petition and referendum.

The chief's present position suggests a remarkable change of heart. In a letter to Alabamians for a Clean Environment dated Nov. 3, 1986, Martin decried the proposed expansion of the Emelle, Ala., hazardous waste facility, which sits just across the state line from Noxubee County and is the largest of its type in the world. Wrote Martin: "We are very concerned about the presence of the Emelle facility negatively affecting both further industrial development and tourism in our area, as well as the safety of the millions of people living on the highways leading to Emelle. People will not want to visit, or to locate manufacturing plants, near such a large hazardous waste facility. Neither Alabama nor Mississippi has a state budget anywhere close to adequate to deal quickly and effectively with waste transport accidents....We cannot afford for our region...to become the waste capital of the world." Of course, that's precisely what Martin now proposes.

Choctaw dissidents worry that the landfill will pose danger to the environment and doubt that the tribe will see many of the promised benefits. "We are old Indians -- we know what toxic waste can do to the environment," says Carmen Denson, a tribal council member opposed to the project. "Anything that harms the land comes back in a circle and harms the people. And these people are ripping us off, making profits on us." Few can understand how tribe members are supposed to find decent jobs at a hazardous waste facility nearly 40 miles from the main reservation. Says Gwen Thompson, a Choctaw who helped organize demonstrations against the project: "Choctaws were always farmers. We don't //have// that many highly educated in technology."

This is an election year on the reservation, and many Choctaws have seized on the opportunity to denounce what they describe as Chief Martin's generally autocratic style. The tribal council, says member Hayward Bell, had little understanding of the contract it voted to approve last June. "I had looked at this for maybe 30 minutes the day before," he says. "It's a 50-year lease!" Sighs Denson: "We don't really have a checks-and-balances system here."

The proposal is still less popular with state officials. Mississippi Gov. Roy Mabus last month asked Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan to refrain from approving the land swap until the state had an opportunity to document its objections. Foremost among them, of course, are environmental concerns. The federal EPA enforces environmental laws on tribal land, but critics contend that the agency already is stretched too thin to guarantee the safety of a site hundreds of miles from its nearest office. "They are trying to throw the mantle of Indian sovereignty over a piece of land totally unconnected to the tribe," says Wilson Carroll, who is investigating the matter for the Mississippi attorney general's office. "Clearly, this is the driving consideration: they want to put in a facility that has less stringent standards than the state of Mississippi would impose." The state, for instance, requires an on-site inspection presence at all hours such a facility is in operation. The EPA does not. And in Mississippi, the state requires a broader assessment of a company's financial prospects than does EPA when permitting a waste project.

State officials are not opposed to a hazardous waste site per se -- in fact, law requires that such a facility be under development by January 1992. In additional to the Choctaw and NDS, two other waste companies have announced plans for a site in Noxubee County, a prime location because of an underground chalk formation that stretches westward to Mississippi from the middle of Alabama. "We know we need a hazardous waste facility in this state," says Alan Huffman, a spokesman for the governor's office. "But the last thing we need is one we can't regulate."

Choctaw leaders have declared that they'll regulate the proposed facility themselves with a new (and improbable) Office of Environmental Quality. The tribe has hired a Jackson scientist, Dr. Corbin McGriff, to advise it on environmental matters, but state officials are unimpressed. "The tribe wants to run its own regulatory program, but to us that's a clear conflict of interest," says Sam Mabry, chief of the hazardous waste division of the Mississippi Dept. of Environmental Engineering.

NDS officials -- whose majority stockholder, D. Richard Partridge, already owns a small waste-disposal company in Florence, Miss. -- make no bones of their desire to avoid state involvement in the proposed site, but they say the problem is less environmental law than capricious taxation. Alabama, for instance, now imposes $114 per ton surcharge on hazardous waste imported from other states; Louisiana charges $85 per ton. "Really, the federal EPA is just as stringent as the state," says NDS attorney Richard Fountain, who is one of five company directors. "We just didn't want the state to create arbitrary taxes like they did in Alabama." By avoiding those taxes on tribal land, says Fountain, the proposed facility may be able to undercut Emelle and other competitors.

That explanation has soothed few back on the reservation, though Richardson, the economic development officer, has continued an effort to make the project seem politically correct. "Chief Martin feels that if you do nothing about environmental problems, you're contributing to them," Richardson says smoothly. "This is a pro-active stand to fix something in the environment. It goes back to the Native American feeling that you've got to leave the land better than you found it."

Richardson, as many on the reservation note privately, is not a Native American. To the Choctaw opposing to the facility, all the talk of money and jobs has an ominously familiar tone. "It's like when the white men came here with hard liquor," says Gwen Thompson. "It's just more trinkets and beads."

Danger on the Reservation